Nearly all MLB handicapping begins with evaluating the starting pitching matchup. How hot is the pitcher? How does the opposition hit against pitchers of his handedness?
MLB bettors have been trained to ask these questions before any others – to treat the starting pitcher as the most important factor in any matchup … but is that still a viable handicapping model in 2020? I think we can do better.
Baseball games are 9 innings long. In the early 20th century, it was routine for the starting pitcher to remain on the mound the entire game. The idea of putting good pitchers in your bullpen did not gain popularity until the 60s and 70s when managers began pulling their starters late in favor of fresh, superior relief pitching.
In the mid-70s, the average start length was over 6 and a half innings. By 1980, the average start length was about 6 and one-third innings.
The movement toward pitching starters fewer innings has not subsided. Today, it is commonplace to see a starter pulled even with a shutout (or in rare cases a no-hitter) on the line.
2011 was the last season in which starting pitchers averaged over 6 innings per start. In 2019, starting pitchers averaged 5.16 innings per start – the lowest mark in the history of baseball.
Handicapping only the starting pitchers will turn the last 4-5 innings of MLB bets into a crapshoot. Without an idea of which relief pitchers the manager is likely to turn to, bettors will be in the dark once that starter inevitably gets pulled in the 4th, 5th, or 6th inning.
Even the star starters are not finishing games. Check out the decline in both complete games and CG shutouts since 2011.
There were just 45 complete games in all of baseball last season. This averages out to 1.5 complete games per team. Which pitcher led the league in complete games last season? It was a tie between Shane Bieber and Lucas Giolito … with 3.
Starting pitcher matchups tell half of the story. Bullpen pitchers are no longer faceless, mediocre nobodies called upon only in blowouts – they are having a major impact on the game.
A team with a good bullpen is going to be tough to beat if those pitchers are rested and available. Following a high-scoring or extra innings contest, bullpens are going to be depleted. It is important to follow news feeds on Twitter or MLB Network to get updates on which pitchers are good to go and which are sitting that day.
A team with a dominant bullpen forced to play without their setup man and closer will not be nearly as dominant.
Gone are the days where a little starting pitcher research is all that is needed to make a profitable pick. MLB managers are turning to more complex bullpen strategies – such as openers and situational lefties – to win games.
We, as smart MLB bettors, must make adjustments as well. Expanding our handicapping to include bullpen pitchers and potential late-game pitcher-batter matchups is a necessity in 2020.
Starters are still important, but they are only half of the equation. Don’t make uneducated picks. Do your bullpen research.
See you on top!